When generosity met innovation: Savings lives, changing care for nearly a decade

Dec. 6, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by Avera Health.

Hundreds of millions in health care giving began with one child – philanthropist Walter Panzirer’s child, who was hospitalized more than a decade ago at Avera Queen of Peace Hospital in Mitchell.

Panzirer, the grandson of real estate tycoon and philanthropist Leona Helmsley, was interested in rural health care and wondered about ways to ensure that everyone could get the same high-quality care that Avera Queen of Peace had given his family, regardless of where they lived.

That inspiration cemented Panzirer’s desire to bring better access to the best health care throughout rural areas. Panzirer’s dream was put into motion in 2007 when he was named a trustee of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Soon after, its Rural Healthcare Program was born. The timing could not have been better as Avera was starting to build a virtual health network that would transform rural care regionwide and beyond.

Avera had just written a planning grant for eCARE Emergency and eCARE Pharmacy services, trying to understand the gaps in rural health care and issues in recruiting and retaining providers.

Coincidentally, Panzirer had commissioned a study by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors that showed a serious disparity in health care grant funding in the upper Midwest. In 2007, only 1.3 percent of the health care dollars allocated nationwide came to the region. Less than 1 percent of that upper Midwest share — $500,000 a year — found its way to South Dakota.

Something had to be done; and since the two organizations were on parallel paths to the same goal, a potential partnership made sense.

Deanna Larson, CEO of Avera eCARE, remembers the initial connection well. She and Panzirer compared notes and found many things in common. “So I said, ‘Why don’t we give him this overview?’ And that started the relationship. He was such a real person, very genuine and very knowledgeable,” Larson recalled of that first meeting in 2008.

That was the year the Helmsley Charitable Trust began making significant donations worldwide.

Panzirer, one of Helmsley’s trustees, knew the importance of time and expertise in delivering emergency care.

A paramedic, firefighter and law enforcement officer, he and his children were living in a rural area. So was his mother.

“What was so impressive to us was his passion for ensuring people who live in rural geographies have access to quality care,” Larson said.

“He would share stories as a paramedic that showed he really understands how important time was when you live remotely. It was almost too much to take in that we had someone who understood there are good people in South Dakota who can innovate and have a pioneering spirit to take us forward with the financial support we needed to make it happen.”

Panzirer and the Helmsley Charitable Trust now have delivered that support for a decade.

It began in 2008 with a $2 million donation to Avera Queen of Peace to support cancer treatment and detection, followed by $11.5 million toward eCARE Emergency and eCARE Pharmacy services.

Panzirer estimates Helmsley has granted nearly $50 million to Avera, supporting everything from cancer care in rural communities to helping with equipment for digital mammography and CT scans. Next year, Helmsley’s Rural Healthcare Program will hit a milestone of $400 million in total grants across a seven-state region over the past decade.

The newly opened Helmsley Center on the campus of Avera St. Mary’s Hospital in Pierre reflects $10 million in funding from the trust.

And eCARE, with support from Helmsley, has delivered immediate care through telemedicine to emergency rooms at 137 hospitals nationwide. eCARE Pharmacy has provided around-the-clock support to 72 sites.

“When we first partnered on eCARE Emergency and expanding the eCARE ICU, Avera was already the leader in telehealth care in the region,” Panzirer said. “They were the natural choice to partner with back then, and it still holds true today. They have been great partners. And after being here nearly 10 years, we are starting to see headway and changes.”

Panzirer thinks about what he describes as faces of those who might not be here if eCARE hadn’t been there to provide fast, expert care.

He estimates they number up to 1,700.

“And when you look at it, it’s a small town,” he said. “That’s someone who could be your teacher, principal, banker, nurse, a mom and dad. They’re still here being able to continue the betterment of South Dakota.”

In cancer care, he thinks of patients, including people he knows in Pierre, who no longer have to drive long distances or stay in other communities to receive care.

“They can get that quality care at home,” he said.

This latest donation, nearly $8 million, will support behavioral health care services via telehealth. It will allow patients and providers in remote areas to access a full behavioral health team as though the experts were sitting in the room.

“In rural America, if you have a behavioral health crisis and it’s not between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., you often can’t get help,” Panzirer said. “People end up in emergency rooms or the sheriff comes and takes them to jail. This way, Avera will be able to offer help from its eCARE platform. They can have highly trained staff do assessments, give care where appropriate, write prescriptions or start counseling services and get that person stabilized.”

The ripple effect of the Hemsley donations has been significant. With the eCARE platform developed, Avera has been able to bring telehealth services into places from nursing homes to prisons, ICUs to schools.

“We would not be what we are today without this generous gifting,” Larson said. “We’ve expanded our service lines many times over. We have become known globally. We’ve gained many new philanthropic relationships and federal funding as they have seen we can deliver what we commit to.”

Avera and the Helmsley Charitable Trust have a shared goal.

“And that’s to reach underserved, rural areas with high-quality medical expertise and technology,” said Bob Sutton, president and CEO of Avera Health.

“Together, we’ve achieved great things that we as Avera wouldn’t have been able to achieve alone. We are extremely grateful for these opportunities.”

Panzirer said his grandmother, would be pleased at how her life’s work is helping to serve others.

“I think she would be very pleased because, No. 1, she was always about results. And we are seeing huge results. She was a very business-focused person. And we’re seeing tangible lives saved, huge cost savings for taxpayers and insurance companies.”

On the human side, “it would hit home” too, Panzirer said.

“She cared for her husband when he wasn’t doing well toward the end of life, and being able to have care close to home and not go far is huge. It’s huge for anybody. And I think she would recognize that and be very proud of what her money has done and how many lives she’s touched by changing and improving the system of care.”

When generosity met innovation: Savings lives, changing care for nearly a decade

Hundreds of millions in health care giving began with one child and has affected countless other people. Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the partnership between Avera and the Helmsley Charitable Trust.

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